KOTA KINABALU: It’s easy to be charmed by the ready smile of Eylia Eyre Guntabid, who grins or giggles even when she talks of the bitter struggle she went through to make it as a champion singer.
She had to fight insults about her appearance with both friends and people in the entertainment industry telling her she was too fat.
Eylia, who turns 18 this December, made Malaysia proud in July when she took home gold for the R&B, World, Open and Gospel vocal categories in the World Championships of Performing Arts competition held in Long Beach, California. She also took silver for the Broadway vocal section.
Popularly called the Olympics for Talent, the competition pits the best young talents from 72 countries in various disciplines such as singing, acting and dancing.
“I never imagined I could win against the scores of talented people from so many countries, what more four gold awards,” she told FMT.
“It was an honour not only for me but also for Malaysia when the judges, who are professionals in the music industry, told me they were surprised and impressed that there was such talent coming from our country.
“I went there just to do my best. I felt I did my duty well for my country.”
She was also the champion in the 2017 Bintang Remaja RTM and runner-up in this year’s state-level Sugandoi competition, a singing competition held every year to celebrate the Harvest Festival.
But Eylia tells of a personal struggle that challenged her ambitions of making it as a professional performing artist.
She knew she had a knack for singing, but the fourth of five siblings said she did not always have what she called “the package”.
“My singing was okay, but my friends always teased me about my looks and it kind of hit my self-confidence. Yes, I didn’t have the package.”
Her mother, Muilin, quipped: “Let me say it. She was actually on the chubby side.”
Eylia said her complexion too “left much to be desired, and it did hurt to be picked on at such a young age”.
Born to a music-loving family, she seemed destined to take up music as a career, mostly thanks to her father Donald, a full-time musician with the Sabah Cultural Board.
“That love for music has always been in the family because of my dad,” she said. “It came naturally to me.
“I started singing when I was five, but it was only when I was 15 that I joined serious competitions like Astro’s Ceria Popstar, in which I didn’t do so well.”
It was around that time that Eylia first saw how nasty the music industry could be.
“The attire we wore was prepared on set and the wardrobe people would measure our bodies. If the clothes didn’t fit us, they would lose their temper.
“They would say things like ‘you’re too fat’ or ‘can you slim down?’ And this of course affects your self-confidence, especially when, in the next moment, you have to walk on stage to sing.
“But I don’t blame them because I don’t think they meant anything bad. They were just super busy and stressed out trying their best to do their jobs.”
Eylia said she had only two choices: either to ditch her dreams and forever look back at what could have been, or to take everything in her stride in the hope of making it big one day.
She decided to take those comments as constructive criticism. “Yes, it’s hurtful, but it also builds my character. It’s true that if we really want to be artistes, appearances are important as people will look at that.
“I also told myself I would prove I could do it.”
Eylia has much to thank her family for. Her parents went the extra mile to ensure she kept to her diet routine besides developing her voice.
Muilin, who works as a nurse, said her daughter shed 35kg after a three-month regime that followed her Ceria Popstar stint. The regime included abstaining from eating her favourite food, fried chicken.
“Eylia loves Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she said. “In order to really support her, we too didn’t eat KFC or any fried chicken. We ate only what she ate – fibre food, vegetables and fish.
“Her weight has been at 50kg since she was 16.”
Eylia said her parents also encouraged her to go on regular jogs and undergo other forms of physical activity to give her the stamina to sing.
“Besides that, my father helped me with song arrangements. My mother is more towards my appearance and emotional preparation.”
Eylia is now contracted to a music label based in Kuala Lumpur. It has produced for her a single entitled “Aku Masih Cinta”. She also has a single in the Kadazandusun language produced by a company based in Kota Kinabalu.
What’s her advice to budding singers? “Just take part in as many competitions as you can to develop your talent and self-confidence, no matter if it’s at village level or what. Get yourselves out there.
“Be patient and don’t give up. And of course, prayers will always help.”
She said aspiring performers must not be discouraged by people who could be blunt and harsh.
“We are humans and we can get hurt, but we should always strive to better ourselves and rise above criticism. There’s no point in dwelling on it and feeling sorry for yourself only to end up doing nothing.
“There will always be the haters, those who deliberately try to bring you down, but the only way to get back at them is to prove you have the talent and mettle to do it.”